‘Oh! What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive…’
That line has been running through my head all of this morning, and though Scott doubtless had specific thoughts of lust and betrayal at its heart when he first penned Marmion (which is, after all, essentially crime fiction), I’ve always thought it apt for writers in general; and increasingly so as I wade into the murky waters of historical crime fiction.
To my mind, the entire raison d’être of fiction writers is to deceive their audience. Deceive them into believing that which is being laid out before them is ‘true’, at least within itself. Even the fantasy writer must construct a world that is true to itself within its own bubble, because if that writer does not know what is true or possible in that universe, they will never be able to persuade a reader that the people and places they have created just may exist, somewhere out there, in another time and place.
I have mentioned my love of research several times before now – how I can become too easily subsumed in the pursuit of those tiny details. I fully realise such scraps may go unnoticed but that is my intention. At no point do I want my readers to know they are being taught anything through clumps of historic fact laid out for inspection. Research that goes past the eye, as a part of everyday life for your protagonists, adds veracity to fiction in all its deceit.
All of which should make me a happy bunny right at this moment. My current series of WW2 crime novels in progress offers many hours to come; reading in the pursuit of ‘truth and verisimilitude’. Winter Downs, the first book in the series, should have been out by now but that research demon on my back has weighed in and on several occasions resulting in some major rewrites. You would be forgiven for thinking that moving the timeline back by twelve months seemed like a simple task and one easily accomplished … think again.
Writing about one’s own past possesses a dimension of verifiable fact. Distant past may be simpler in that fewer readers will be familiar with, say, the correct way to hold a broadsword in battle, or whether that particular plant was growing wild in that country in those times.
Once the story being recounted is set in the more recent past — in the realms of living memory — then things get slightly more complicated. People may remember these things for themselves — or have been affected indirectly through family history or seen one of the many TV programmes that cover those years in minute detail.
However, readers are aware of those details. Many will read something they know to be incorrect and do that thing – that pfft moment – and close the book. We have all been there. (As a former Master Locksmith, for example, I will rail against people picking complex locks with a single hairgrip!)
In the case of my own historic crime novel I had need to reschedule the crime itself by a whole twelve months for various logistical reasons. This brought a whole raft of added research with it. Which goods came on ration and when, and the fact that the Blitz would not happen for another six months, and of course the teeny-tiny fact that there were no US troops in UK soil in January 1940… All background details, which have no direct bearing on the plot as such, but to get them wrong would have blown not just this book but the entire series out of the water.
Today, having despatched the manuscript off to the editor, I am back to the research coal face for a major digging session. Why? Because pulling Book One back a year has forced the intended sequel into the book three slot in order for the historic premise to work, and my rough synopsis needs to be fully researched – phew! It confuses me – and it’s my world!
So it is back to the fact mines. And running through my head all the while: ‘Oh! What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive…’